The Course of Reason

Americans aren’t as religious as they pretend to be

September 21, 2011

It’s well-known that a lot of church-goers don’t really believe what their pastors preach. This is probably especially true among teenagers. Twenty minutes at the Atheism sub-Reddit will convince you that there are plenty of young people being forced by their parents to attend church who don’t believe a lick of it, and I’m sure that many of our own members (myself included) continued attending church long after they stopped believing in gods. On occasion, I still attend church, to see old friends and hear the music. Not to generalize, but there is a lot of social pressure in this country to be seen at church, especially in the South and Midwest, to the point that it’s become a cliché for Southerners, women especially, to “dress up for each other” (to quote John Mellencamp) – witness “church hats” and “Sunday best.”


What isn’t as well-known is that Americans are even less religious than this. We’re so far just talking about people who actually attend churches. What about people who only pretend to attend? Data show that Americans, when polled, tend to exaggerate their church attendance by about 200%. That is, about 40% of Americans, when polled, say they attend church every week. But if you actually go around to churches and count heads (as researchers have done), that number is closer to 20%. Another, more-recent study with a different methodology shows that the attendance gap is between 10-18%, but still extant.

Why do Americans lie about how often they attend church? I’ve seen other data that indicate this doesn’t really happen in European countries, or at best, at a rate approximately half of the American rate, and then only among Catholics (4-8%).

I think the lead study author, Phillip Brenner, hit the nail on the head when he said, “American religiosity as an outlier is a concept that may be better applied to identity and self-concept rather than behavior.”

It’s like the joke about when you ask an American what religion they are, and they answer, “None,” the next question you’re supposed to ask is, “What church do you go to?” A surprisingly large proportion of people who answer “None” to the first question have a ready answer to the second one. Many millions of Americans don’t actually want to be religious; they just want to appear religious, for whatever reason. I think that’s sad. 

Greta Christina and Jen McCreight spoke about this during the 2011 Midwest Humanist & Freethought Conference in Omaha this summer: The reason religious people get upset when you criticize their beliefs is that they don’t consider them “beliefs”; they consider their religion to be their identity. And it’s not cool to attack someone’s identity. For example, it’s the same reason LGBTQ folks get upset (rightfully) when bigots criticize the “belief” that LTBTQ people deserve the right to be with whomever they want. They (and allies like me) do not consider this to be a “belief,” open to criticism; it’s part of our identity and when you criticize it, you criticize us. Is this bad? I don’t know; it’s just something that is. I think that, in order to make logical progress, we need to put things on the table for discussion and look at them empirically and reasonably. To quote Matt Dillahunty, “If you can come up with something I believe, that I DON’T have evidence for, guess what I’ll do? I’ll stop believing it. That is the nature of a rational mind.” I can justify, reasonably, why LGBTQ people deserve the right to be with whomever they want. If I couldn’t, or if someone were able to demonstrate to me why my justifications aren’t sound, I would change my mind, and be grateful that I was no longer incorrect (good luck!).

The question is, can people who believe in Christianity (this wording is intentional, rather than “Christians”) justify, reasonably, that their religion is true? Despite years of active searching, I have never heard a rational justification for belief in Christianity that didn’t include 1) incorrect or unsubstantiated historical information 2) one or more logical fallacies 3) and/or an absence of logical or empirical backing altogether (i.e. appeals to faith). My “belief” that LGBTQ folks have the right to be with whom they want and the belief that Jesus is a god are not on equal footing. One is justifiable (and justified), and the other is not.

So what does all of this mean for atheism activist? It means that not only are church-going people not as religious as they, for whatever reason, want to appear to be, but non-church going people aren’t, either. To quote Alan Harvey, “Every day the voice of atheism grows louder, more confident, backed by ever increasing evidence, reason and logic. Every day the religious respond by sticking their fingers in their ears and shouting ‘Lalalalala!’” The number of self-reported atheists and non-religious people is increasing every year, especially among people under 30. The seed of rational thinking is planted, and it’s growing. It is finally becoming socially acceptable, at least in cities and especially on the coasts, to be “out” as an atheist. The internet is fueling this even faster in other areas. I am so excited to be in on the ground floor of atheist activism, so to speak. But there is more we need to do.

As I’ve said before on this blog, as atheists, we need to be better about providing a place of safety & community for each other. A lot of people are “trapped” in churches because they are afraid of loneliness or rejection. They are afraid of losing their friends or their social safety net. We can provide this, guys!

When I’m asked, “What’s the #1 piece of advice you would give to someone doubting their religion?”, my response is, “Find a local group.” My runner-up is “Step into the doubt” – explore your questions, read some Richard Dawkins, Bart Ehrman, Karen Armstrong; check out some YouTube videos (see the links in the Resources section at the bottom of this post), and find some other atheists you can talk to, and ask them questions. There is so much information out there, just waiting for you. Be a sponge! And a local group is a great way to start.

If you are in or near Columbia, I strongly encourage you to attend a SASHA meeting. We meet every Wednesday at 5:30 PM (see this blog or our Facebook group for location details) and we are always open to curiosity-seekers.  That is what we are here for.

I hope you are all having a great week. Until next time!

This post originally appeared on The MU SASHA Blog.

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About the Author: Dave Muscato

Dave Muscato's photo

Dave Muscato is Vice President of University of Missouri Skeptics, Atheists, Secular Humanists, & Agnostics (MU SASHA). He has appeared in Rolling Stone, People, Time, The New York Times, SPIN, and Entertainment Weekly, and on MTV News, VH1, NPR, MSNBC, ABC, and Howard Stern. Muscato is a junior at the University of Missouri majoring in economics & anthropology and minoring in philosophy & Latin. Muscato posts updates to the Official SASHA Blog every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday. His website is and he can be reached at




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